In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.